Bruce Anderson: Never has victory yielded such bitterness. Politically, the PM is an unburied corpse

Mr Blair has not only lost his ability to run an effective government. He has lost the will
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The election results lead to one overriding conclusion. The present structure of political parties rests on a fragile foundation of public consent.

The election results lead to one overriding conclusion. The present structure of political parties rests on a fragile foundation of public consent.

With such a prolonged and intense campaign, plus the unprecedented number of postal votes, I had expected a significant rise in turnout. In fact, there was only a small increase from 2001. If one allows for the postal vote factor, this signifies another decline in public interest.

There has also been a further, almost terminal, decline in tribalism. The Liberals may not have achieved the breakthrough which they had hoped for, but they did have one success which will be even more important in the longer term. They persuaded large numbers of former Labour voters to support them: consider the results in Newcastle, Norwich, Nottingham and Manchester. Obviously, the war was a crucial factor, but as West Country Tories could tell the Labour party, voting Liberal can be habit-forming. A significant section of the Labour tribe has already defected to the Liberals, and there is no reason why this should be the end of the process.

Traditionally, many Labour MPs have looked on their working-class constituents with a mixture of sentimentality and patronage. They had taken it for granted that their people would always vote for them; that they were serfs of socialism. That complacent assumption can no longer be justified. It has been overtaken by economic, social and cultural changes. The decline of manual labour and trade unionism has led to a decline in Labourite political attitudes. The disintegration of the family has turned a section of the working class in to the underclass (Marx was right to dismiss the political value of the lumpenproletariat). For all those reasons, the Labour tribe is not what it was.

Nor is the Tory one. In 1997, I canvassed with the late Nick Budgen. In those days, Nick still held Enoch Powell's old seat in Wolverhampton. I went down a gravel drive and rang the bell of an impressive house; no one in. I was about to leave, when an affluent car appeared. Before I could ask its owner a question, he answered it: "Course I'm Tory. D'you think I'm bloody mad?''

In those days, apart from the odd certifiable inhabitant, the Tories could regard the serried hedgerows of suburbia as their tribal reservation. That is no longer true. These days, many middle-class voters approach elections as if they were buying a car or choosing a holiday. They will not decide until they have scrutinised all the details in the competing small print.

This time, the Tories had a further problem with their erstwhile supporters. The customers did not warm to the salesman. Michael Howard was not an asset on the doorstep. I found one way to commend him: "If Michael Howard was the man you think he is, he would not be married to Sandra Howard." She was much the most effective spouse in British political history, but it was not enough.

The Tories have to reconnect themselves to middle Britain. They have to put themselves on the side of those who want world-class healthcare and first-rate education; who are exasperated by the police's incompetence, worried about pensions and anxious to help young people buy their first house.

Having done all that, the Tories must also hold out the hope of tax cuts. They must persuade the voters that economic growth and the elimination of government waste can deliver excellent public services and reduce tax bills. The Tories need one slogan for middle Britain: "We are on your side''.

In its absence, they had a stroke of fortune. His name was Charles Kennedy. Both the leading parties are frustrated by the voters' willingness to give the Liberals a free pass on policy and to chuckle when Charlie reveals his ignorance of his own party's economic policy. But there are limits. Mr Kennedy was not an asset. If Menzies Campbell had led the Liberals, they would have got at least 27 per cent of the vote. If Charlie's relative success means he will stay in post while still being the man who takes the weight out of lightweight, the other two parties will rejoice.

Today, there is little rejoicing in the Blair camp. Never has the harvest of victory yielded such bitter fruit. John Major's Tories were much more cheerful in 1992 than Tony Blair's supporters are today.

There was a good reason for this. At the turn of the year, the Blairites were triumphalist. Their third term would at last produce a radical reform of the public services; a welfare state which the middle classes would queue up to use. If Gordon Brown did not like it he could lump it. Whether he chose to become Foreign Secretary, retreat to the backbenches, or simply get stuffed, his pique and his fate would not detain the Blairites. He was yesterday.

Today, he is restored to his position as Labour's tomorrow. Tony Blair may have returned to Downing Street, but only as a ward of court; Gordon Brown's court. For many years, where Gordon Brown was concerned, Tony Blair has broken his word and welshed on his bargains. This time, there is no escape.

Mr Blair's diminished power was manifest in Friday's reshuffle. For understandable reasons, the PM had wanted to move Ruth Kelly to a non-speaking role. When she had reverse elocution lessons to disguise her schooling at Millfield and Westminster, she did irreparable damage to her voice. She now sounds like something the BBC invented for the revival of Doctor Who. But with all the authority of less than six months' undistinguished service in cabinet, Mrs Kelly defied the PM - and he gave way.

He made one especially absurd decision. Peter Hain is shallow, self-centred, brash and insensitive; every bit as much of a lightweight as Charles Kennedy, but with none of the charm. If there is a job for which he is wholly unsuited, it is the Northern Ireland secretaryship. Not only that; in a quiet, unsung way, the previous incumbent, Paul Murphy, had been a success.

In view of the collapse of David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party, the new Northern Ireland Secretary will require subtlety, wisdom, diplomacy, patience and cunning. It would be absurd to suggest that Peter Hain possesses any of those qualities. Yet Tony Blair appointed him.

This proves that the PM has not only lost the ability to run an effective government. He has also lost the will. Mr Hain ended up in Ulster because Mr Blair needed a piece to fill the last gap of the jigsaw. Tony Blair used to regard Ulster as one of his successes. The Hain appointment demonstrates that he has lost interest in his former successes, and that he is no longer the man who brought them about. It was a failure of will, and indeed of morality.

Politically, Tony Blair is nothing more than an unburied corpse. His continuing decomposition will be the main theme of the next few months. This is set to be a fascinating parliament.